Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Straw and the city dweller

I remember playing in the barn with my cousins as a kid, moving straw bales around and creating little forts where we would play with the barn cat's latest litter of kittens. Straw was also in the stalls with the milk cow, in the chicken coop, and trailing out into the barn yard. We came in from our adventures with straw in our hair, itchy bits in our clothes and stalks poking through our socks. I never really gave it much thought -- it was just part of life on the farm.

And for the past year, it's been a useful part of my life in the city, too. Over a year ago, my hubby and I "rescued" some straw bales from our local tobogganing hill. They were going to be collected by the city and taken for composting, but a friend who works with the City's Master Composter/Recycler Program had the great idea of collecting a dumpster-ful for local gardeners' use. When we turned up to claim some from the park where they were to be picked up, the city workers didn't know anything about a straw bale bin. They suggested that we just go get what we need from any tobogganing hill before the bales were taken away. So Lee and I did just that, laughing at how funny it might seem to passersby that a middle-aged couple was kidnapping straw bales!

And guess what? I did it again this year -- got "permission" from my friend, the City composting expert, and collected two bales from the top of the same hill this time -- picture a grey-haired woman huffing and puffing, sweating buckets on the hottest day of April, lugging two 60-80 pound (30+ kilo) bales across the hill and over a guardrail to put in the back of her vehicle. It felt a little strange, to say the least... what would I say if someone questioned me? Not that straw bales are highly valued commodities in a city... but still. I'd have to tell the truth and hope my questioner would laugh along with me about my strange gardener's compulsion!

I gathered bales this second year running because the straw I spread in my garden last year did several wonderful things. To my thinking intially, its most important job was to protect my strawberries from rot, thread worms and slugs. And after that, it would keep the paths between the boxes from turning to mud -- it definitely worked like a charm in that regard. But in actuality, the biggest benefit was how much less weeding I had to do between my raised boxes. Prior to spreading straw, I spent many summer hours hoeing the pathways to clear them of portulaca and chickweed, pulling up small elm trees that had seeded themselves, and digging dandelions and other nuisance weeds. Last summer, straw made a huge difference -- it smothered most of those problems as it broke down into soft organic matter, and I vowed that it would always have a place in my garden.

Yesterday, I took apart this year's bales, packed straw around the transplants in my new strawberry boxes, and spread the rest of the bales between the garden boxes like last summer. There's a thicker layer now, so I probably won't need any more bales next year. If weeds do show up, they're easy to pull because their roots can't cling to anything substantial. Of course, the straw may bring its own seeds and weeds, but green wheat stems springing up are easy to spot and pull, and weeds peter out pretty quickly when they can't reach deep enough to root in soil.

So to all you gardeners out there who are thinking about how to deal with dirt paths in your gardens, I'd highly recommend avoiding pebbles/rocks/stones/tiles (which eventually end up with enough dirt blown in to provide plenty of weed habitat, and we all know how hard it is to dig weeds out of stony ground). Try lowly straw instead. f you don't have a tobogganing hill with a few bales to spare, you can always find some at garden centres. Straw is a great way to reduce the garden workload, speaking from experience!

And it's pretty nice having a little bit of farm in the city.

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